NL Division Series Preview: Cardinals vs. Phillies

PHOENIX, AZ: Pitcher Roy Halladay #34 and Cliff Lee #33 of the Philadelphia Phillies sit in the dugout during the Major League Baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The St. Louis Cardinals sneaked into the playoffs on a miracle. The Philadelphia Phillies have been a playoff lock since May. Who's got the edge?

I like CoolStandings.com a lot. I like it an awful lot. I like it so much that I probably visit it at least once a week during the regular season, even in April and May. I don't know why, but I guess I just really enjoy staring at playoff odds, calculated by a formula to which I am not privy.

So let's consider those playoff odds for a moment. Even allowing for the fact that there's no way these calculated playoff odds are perfect, I think it's fair to say they represent approximations of the truth, yes? They can't be that far off. At any given time, they give you a pretty good idea of where a team stands.

The Philadelphia Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals are meeting in the first round of the 2011 MLB playoffs. According to CoolStandings, the Phillies' playoff odds never once dropped below 50 percent, and they never dropped below 80 percent after June 27. For the Cardinals, meanwhile, their playoff odds dropped below 50 percent on June 14, and they never climbed back up and over until September 27.

Clearly, the Phillies and Cardinals followed very different paths to get to where they are. The Phillies have been preparing for the playoffs for months. The Cardinals didn't even know they'd be in the playoffs until the final day of the regular season.

Why did things play out this way? Simple. The Phillies are a very good team. They have been from the beginning. The Cardinals are a less good team. Where the Phillies might be the best team in baseball, the Cardinals had to fight other, similarly-talented teams to get here. The Phillies are better than the Cardinals - they've been better than the Cardinals all season - and so we know the Phillies have the advantage in this series.

Okay, that doesn't tell you anything. Of course the Phillies are favored. The more important issue here is, do the Cardinals stand a chance? And the answer to that is, yes, yes they do. A fairly good one. Let's look at a handy graphic that ties everything together all neat-like:

Head2head_phillies_cards_medium

Here, the font size for each word corresponds to the team's percentile ranking in each category. For example, the Phillies' rotation is huge because the Phillies had a great rotation this year. The Cardinals' defense is small because the Cardinals' defense was not very good.

What do we see? We see that this series isn't lopsided. Yes, the Phillies are going to come after St. Louis with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and then - if necessary - Roy Oswalt. That is obscenely good. That is a video game rotation that's right up there among the very best playoff rotations ever built.

But I want to show you something. Here's where the Cardinals' offense ranked in the NL in a few important categories:

Average: 1st
On-base: 1st
Slugging: 1st
Runs: 1st

The Cardinals have Albert Pujols. They have Lance Berkman. They have Matt Holliday, David Freese, Yadier Molina, and Jon Jay. The Cardinals can hit the crap out of the ball. The Phillies can throw the crap out of the ball, but we're talking strength versus strength, and that old saw that good pitching beats good hitting - it isn't true. Not always, and not necessarily here.

Hurting the Cardinals is the fact that Holliday is doubtful for Game 1 due to injury, but you know who'd fill in for Matt Holliday? Allen Craig, who posted a .917 OPS. They'd manage.

It is hard to get past the Phillies' rotation, and indeed, it's an incredible rotation. That rotation makes the Phillies favored. But it doesn't make them unbeatable, and the Cardinals might just score a few runs. In that event, it'll be up to the Cardinals' pitching staff to keep the Phillies' bats quiet, which isn't as tough to do as it was a few years ago.

The names are mostly the same as they've ever been. The production is not. Hunter Pence helps, and Shane Victorino has been terrific, but Ryan Howard isn't Ryan Howard. Chase Utley's numbers were down. Raul Ibanez's numbers were down. The Phillies have a good offense, but not a fantastic offense, and the Cardinals can throw Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia. Kyle Lohse is more of a wild card, but he had a successful season, and should the series advance to four games, you never know what you might get from Edwin Jackson.

Interestingly, Tony La Russa is rolling the dice by having Carpenter start Game 2 on short rest. Carpenter has never started on short rest before in his career, and, historically, pitchers have performed worse on short rest than on regular rest. But he's still Chris Carpenter, and he's still going to be throwing Chris Carpenter pitches, and by having him pitch Game 2, he could be available to pitch a potential Game 5. That's an important consideration.

Look, I've written a lot of words. I've tried to come to the defense of the Cardinals' chances in this series. The Phillies are better, and gun to my head, I say the Phillies win this series in four games. If they sweep, I won't be surprised. But just don't underestimate St. Louis. They're a good team that can compete with the Phillies, and they're good enough to make this series come down to the details - relievers, pinch-hitters, in-game strategy - instead of the obvious. The Phillies have that rotation, but it doesn't make them a lock. It doesn't make them anything close.

The St. Louis Cardinals rode a miracle into the playoffs, but, in short, I don't think they'd need a miracle to advance. Just quality hitting, quality pitching, and a little bit of luck.

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